Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey ***

After a successful run downtown, James Lecesne’s one-man show has moved to the Westside Theatre for a limited run. Lecesne adapted the piece from his young adult novel about a flamboyant 14-year old boy in a Jersey shore town who goes missing. The story is told from the viewpoint of the hardboiled detective who worked the case 10 years ago. Lecesne skillfully transforms in the blink of an eye to the various townspeople the detective interviews in the course of the investigation. These include Leonard’s tough-as-nails guardian Helen, who operates “Hair Today”, the local salon; her teenage daughter Phoebe, whose life has been adversely affected by Leonard joining the household; the fey British expat who runs the local drama and dance school; a philosophically inclined mob widow; an old watchmaker with regrets about the way he treated his own son; one of Helen’s girlfriends; and a local bully named Travis. Not since the early work of Anna Deavere Smith have I seen a performer portray so many distinct characters with such apparent ease. Lecesne won an Oscar in 1995 for his short film Trevor and was a founder of The Trevor Project, a hotline for LGBT youth, so he is familiar with his material. My enthusiasm was slightly tempered by Lecesne’s tendency to give some of his characters too many easy laugh lines and by the dash of sentimentality at the end. I felt the performance was better than the material. Jo Winiarski’s minimalist set design is enhanced by Aaron Rhyne’s projections. Duncan Sheik wrote the unobtrusive music. Tony Speciale’s (Unnatural Acts) direction is uncluttered. Running time: 75 minutes.

Note: Picking a good seat downstairs at Westside Theatre is dicey. There are four pillars that obstruct the view from some seats. Rows B and C have no risers above Row A. Moving backward from there, only every other row is on a riser. None of this shows up on a seating map, so I suggest you book by phone and ask questions.

John ***

The first play in Annie Baker’s residency at Signature Theatre is now in previews there. After my exasperating experience with her Pulitzer winner The Flick, I attended with low expectations. To my great surprise, I actually enjoyed myself. The traditional crimson curtain with gold fringe covering the stage was the first sign that this was going to be something different for her. That curtain is pulled open by Georgia Engel who plays Mertis Katherine Graven, the genial innkeeper of a b&b in Gettysburg. We see the ornate sitting room with a gigantic Christmas tree and a thousand tchotchkes, stuffed animals and dolls, as well as the Parisian-themed breakfast room. Set designer Mimi Lien (Preludes, The Oldest Boy) has outdone herself. Two guests arrive — Elias Schreiber-Hoffman (Christopher Abbott of “Girls”) and Jenny Chung (Hong Chau) — a neurotic couple who have been together for a rocky three years and who have come to Gettysburg to repair the damage of a recent blow-up. From the raised voices soon after they have retreated upstairs to their room, we gather that the healing is not going well. We eventually learn why Jenny is so clingy and Elias is so mistrustful. In pain with menstrual cramps, Jenny cuts short their battlefield tour the next day while Elias goes to dinner and takes a ghost tour. Jenny and Mertis are joined by Genevieve Marduk (the wonderful Lois Smith), a blind neighbor who recounts her past brush with mental illness after she became convinced that her late husband had invaded her soul. Three times during the weekend someone asks to hear a scary story. Baker clearly had a good time developing an air of mystery and a suggestion of the imminent supernatural. There are red herrings galore including a player piano with a mind of its own, Christmas lights that turn on and off at will and a mysterious journal that Mertis keeps. What turns out to be basically a very simple story has been stretched to Baker size with three acts. Between the second and third acts, there is a unexpected treat involving Lois Smith. My only problem is that I did not find Elias and Jenny sufficiently interesting to deserve all the attention. There is no character onstage named John. I won’t reveal the reason for the title. Asta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes are fine. The clever sound design by Bray Poor involves Mertis playing CDs on a faux-antique player — Bach, more Bach and, finally, Offenbach. Director Sam Gold once again demonstrates his affinity for Baker’s sensibility. Running time: 3 hours 20 minutes including two intermissions.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Summer Shorts: Series A ***

59E59 Theater is once again hosting the Summer Shorts Festival of New American Short Plays. Series A features works by Neil LaBute (most recently The Way We Get By), Vickie Ramirez and Matthew Lopez (The Whipping Man). 

LaBute’s 10K  presents two joggers, a woman (Clea Alsip) and a man (J.J. Kandel), who are certainly among the fittest actors on a New York stage. Although they are jogging for almost the entire play, their bodies and their voices show no signs of fatigue. They meet on their daily run in a nature reserve and carry on a conversation that gradually grows more personal and leads them to reveal their fantasies. It’s a minor work that is superbly realized. The playwright directed.

Glenburn 12 WP by Ramirez is the evening’s weak point. Troy (Tre Davis), a young black man who has been at an anti-racism protest at Grand Central Terminal, enters a nearby Irish pub to have a beer. The bartender is unaccountably absent. He is soon joined by Roberta (Tanis Parenteau), a woman in her 30s who is a regular at the bar and who turns out to be part Native American. She tries to persuade him to have a drink, but he is reluctant to without the bartender there. She provokes him into a conversation and offers to pay for his drinks. When she goes down to the cellar allegedly to see if the bartender is there, she returns with a bottle of the very expensive Scotch for which the play is named. After a couple of drinks, she reveals a dark secret, which seemed completely implausible. The actors did their best with poorly written characters. Mel Haney directed.

The Sentinels by Lopez introduces us to three 9/11 widows whose husbands worked for the same firm and who meet at a coffee shop near ground zero every year. Alice’s (Meg Gibson) husband was the company’s founder. The acerbic Christa (Kellie Overbey) was married to an important executive there. Kelly’s (Michelle Beck) husband was a recent hire. Zuzanna Szadkowski is the waitress. The gimmick is that the story is told backwards starting in 2011 and proceeding in short scenes back to 2000. The concept is better than the execution. The short scenes don’t really build in intensity. The cast was good. The flatness seemed more in the writing than in Stephen Brackett’s direction.

Rebecca Lord-Surratt’s set design transformed nicely between locations. Dede Ayite’s costumes were apt. The evening was pleasant but not memorable. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes, no intermission.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Hand to God (revisited) ****

Curiosity and a ticket purchased with Audience Rewards points led me to the Booth Theatre to see how well Robert Askins’s dark comedy weathered the trip from Christopher Street to 45th Street. When I heard that the producers planned to move it to Broadway, I thought it was a bad mistake. It seemed much too edgy for Broadway. I assumed that the production would be toned down considerably for the move uptown. I am happy to report that I was wrong on both counts. The show has been running since March to enthusiastic audiences that include large numbers of young people all too rarely seen on Broadway. If anything, the Broadway audience seemed more attuned to the show’s vibe than the downtown audience. Furthermore, the production has not been toned down in the slightest; it’s just as raw as it was off-Broadway. 

Here’s what I said when I gave the MCC production three stars in March 2014:

This very dark comedy by Robert Askins was both a sell-out and an Obie winner when it appeared at Ensemble Studio Theatre a couple of years ago, so it is easy to understand why MCC has brought it back in a new production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. A Texas church includes a puppet ministry among its programs. Margery (Geneva Carr) is a recent widow who tries valiantly to interest three teenagers in her puppetry class. Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch) has a yen for Margery, as does Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer), one of her students. Her other students are the nerdy Jessica (Sarah Stiles) and Margery's shy son Jason (Steven Boyer) whose attachment to his demonic hand puppet Tyrone is, to put it mildly, extreme. Is the foul-mouthed violent Tyrone the devil or just an expression of Jason's (or humanity's) dark side? When Jason and Tyrone end up in hand to hand combat, who will win? There is much to admire here -- a lively script, a fine cast (especially Boyer), smooth direction by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, the spot-on set design by Beowulf Boritt and costumes by Sydney Maresca. At times the playwright tries too hard to shock. The coarseness of the language and the bloodiness of the action go further than necessary to make their point. There are some extremely entertaining scenes along the way, but I'm not sure where it all leads. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes, including intermission.

The play seemed more intense this time. The funny scenes were funnier and the tragic moments were sadder. The excellent cast seemed energized and fresh. Boyer remains absolutely amazing. I still find some of it over the top and a bit muddled, but it is performed with such style and conviction that I have given it another star. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Oklahoma! — at Bard Summerscape ****

Director Daniel Fish’s concept for this production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration is highly original. He has reduced the cast to ten and, with new musical arrangements by Daniel Kluger, cut the musicians to a band of six that includes a mandolin, a banjo, an accordion and a pedal steel guitar. The audience is seated at two tiers of long tables that surround the rectangular space holding  the actors and musicians. On the tables are crockpots of chili that will be served along with cornbread and lemonade at intermission. Colorful foil ribbons hang from the ceiling. Not to be overlooked are the racks of rifles that completely cover one wall. The actors sit on folding chairs inside the rectangle when not performing and occasionally sit on or jump on tables and race around the aisles. Clearly, this is not your grandparents’ “Oklahoma!” Its immersive nature reminded me of the staging of “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.” The only actor’s name I recognized was Mary Testa, who makes a fine Aunt Eller. Curly is played by Damon Daunno, who looks like a pop star, plays a mean guitar, but is a bit insecure vocally. Amber Gray is a fine Laurey. James Patrick Davis is solid as Will Parker. Allison Strong seemed a bit tepid as Ado Annie. Benj Mirman resists the urge to unduly caricature Ali Hakim. Patrick Vaill is a complex, almost sympathetic Jud. There is much to admire. The scene in the smokehouse begins in total darkness and is then augmented by huge video projections of Jud and Curly in tight closeup. On the minus side, instead of the famous dream ballet to end the first act, we get a strange musical pastiche at the beginning of the second act that is meant to represent Laurey’s dream. It didn’t work for me. My only strong objection is to a drastic revision of the book that occurs a few moments before the end. The final confrontation between Curly and Jud has been completely changed in a manner that casts a new, rather sinister light on everything that has preceded it. I must confess that I am surprised that the powers that control Rodgers and Hammerstein productions allowed it. It was not enough to spoil my appreciation for an otherwise thoroughly engaging show. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including intermission.

Off the Main Road -- at Williamstown Theatre Festival ***

For her first production, Williamstown Theatre Festival’s new artistic director Mindy Greenfield has made an interesting choice — presenting the world premiere of a William Inge play written in the 1960’s but never staged. It is hard to believe now that Inge was once mentioned in the same breath as Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams as one of our top playwrights. His reputation fell far and fast. Although conventional wisdom has it that most lost plays have been lost for good reason, WTF was smart to bring this deeply flawed but rarely dull play to the stage. It presents both Inge’s strengths — astute observation of Midwesterners and vivid portraits of female characters — and his weaknesses — unconvincing male characters and a penchant for melodrama. Kyra Sedgwick plays Faye Garrit. While still in her teens, she was forced by her overbearing mother (played by Estelle Parsons, amazing at 87) to marry a wealthy older man. Upon his death, to her mother’s horror, she met and married a popular baseball player Manny Garrit (Jeremy Davidson). Now, 10 years later, Manny is no longer a player and sometimes becomes abusive when he drinks. As the play opens, after getting a black eye from Manny, she has fled to a resort cabin not far from the city with Julia (an excellent Mary Wiseman), her daughter from her first marriage, who is attending a convent school. Sparks fly between Julia and Vic Burns (a fine Daniel Sharman), son of the landlady (Becky Ann Baker, virtually wasted here). Faye often spends time with a gay art dealer Jimmy Woodford (Howard W. Overshown), a friend since childhood. Faye’s impulsive fling with an oversexed taxi driver, Gino (Aaron Costa Ganis), has unanticipated consequences. Kyra Sedgwick has too strong a personality to easily play an aimless, indecisive woman, but she does her best. The play has some humorous moments, some of which were probably unintentional. The idea that a domineering mother would produce a daughter who becomes a neglectful mother whose own daughter develops a deep hunger for certainty in her life seemed psychologically convincing. I wish the play hadn’t descended into overwrought melodrama, but that’s Inge for you. The set design by Takeshi Kata and costumes by Paloma Young are fine. Evan Cabnet’s direction is assured. Running time 2 hours 10 minutes including intermission. (Closed)

Man of La Mancha -- at Barrington Stage ***

To mark the 50th anniversary of its Broadway premiere, Barrington Stage (which confusingly is in Pittsfield, not Great Barrington) has mounted a revival of the Dale Wasserman (book)/Mitch Leigh (music)/Joe Darion (lyrics) musical about Don Quixote and his creator Miguel de Cervantes. Thanks largely to Richard Kiley’s rendition of “The Impossible Dream,” the show was a big hit, won five Tonys, ran for years and was twice revived, once with Kiley and once with Brian Stokes Mitchell. Aside from its three big songs, I found little to admire in the show itself. Its book seemed too contrived for my taste. That being said, this production was quite good. The enormous bilevel set by James Kronzer was outstanding. Olivera Gajic’s costumes, especially those for the knights of the mirror, were excellent. Greg Graham’s choreography and Ryan Winkles’s fight staging were terrific. In a generally strong cast, Felicia Boswell stood out as Aldonza/Dulcinea. Jeff McCarthy, as Cervantes/Don Quixote, was good, not great. Julianne Boyd’s direction was fluid. Unlike last year’s hit “On the Town” this Barrington Stage production is unlikely to make it to New York. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes, no intermission. (Closed.)

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

10 out of 12 **

Is it a coincidence that two promising playwrights named “Anne” or “Annie” have written lengthy plays set in a workplace that involves show business? First Annie Baker gave us The Flick, about the employees of a run-down movie theater. Now Anne Washburn (Mr. Burns: a Post-Electric Play) has penned a sly comedy about the actors, creative staff and backstage crew preparing for the opening of a play in a downtown Manhattan theater not unlike Soho Rep, where the show is playing. The production’s concept is a clever one: each audience member is given a listening device to follow the conversations of stage manager (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and crew during the upcoming play’s tech rehearsal. For those not in the know, in which group I include myself, the “tech” is a long, tedious process in which all the elements of the play including lighting, sound design, costumes and set are finalized. The play’s title refers to the union rule that people may not work more than 10 hours in a 12-hour period. The actors in the play-within-a play (Gibson Frazier, Nina Hellman, Sue Jean Kim, David Ross and Thomas Jay Ryan) must deal with a director (Bruce McKenzie) who makes Hamlet look decisive by comparison. As the long rehearsal drags on, the work falls further and further behind schedule. Boredom and fatigue take their toll. Tempers flare and egos burst. Seeing Ryan lose his cool is one of the play’s greatest pleasures. It all ends with a Kumbaya moment that seemed only partially earned. While I admired the concept, I had problems with the execution. There are frequent boring passages, which I realize is part of the point, but nevertheless taxed my patience. There were many entertaining moments too but the fractured structure never came together for me. David Zinn’s set and Asta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes work well and Les Waters’s direction is sharp. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including intermission.